The Beautiful Simplicity of Detectorists


Towards the end of Detectorists, the president of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club (DMDC) digs up a small artifact. He waves to his wife who is sitting and reading nearby, and calls out proudly that it is a button from the Welsh guard. Though it is a small find, he tears up a little, perhaps both from happiness (he is a button collector), but also out of a grateful acknowledgement towards his understanding wife. That balance of sweetness and sly humor is what makes the quiet loveliness of Detectorists such a Peak TV treasure.

This gentle series is created, written, and directed by Mackenzie Crook (familiar to most as starring in the U.K. Office), and its three seasons and a Christmas special are available in the U.S. on Hulu. It follows the tales of two men, Andy (Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones), who live seemingly unremarkable lives in a tiny English town. But they are united by a passion for metal detecting, which they pursue as a serene hobby across the farmlands of Essex. Both have working-class day jobs; Andy is employed at various places through a temp agency when the series starts, and Lance is a forklift driver. As for their personal lives, Lance is divorced but still obsessed with his New Age-y ex-wife Maggie (Lucy Benjamin), who dumped him for the manager of a pizza restaurant; Andy is in a long-term relationship with a sarcastic but empathetic school teacher (Rachel Stirling). They spend most evenings at the pub with the other detectorists, talking about their finds and getting involved in each other’s personal lives.

Detectorists is a show that focuses on life’s smallest moments, with the unhurried pace of the fictional village in which it’s set. There is a great joke in the series where a character drops their keys one evening and swears five lights came on down the street as people ran to their windows. Later, it turns out that everyone in town eventually heard about it, and are concerned the keys were lost (“just dropped and then picked back up,” Lance reassures them). But the show also knows that these moments are some of life’s most important. Even as Lance and Andy sit under a tree in a field and talk about last night’s episode of University Challenge, repeating the same jokes and stories they have for years, there is a wonderful familiarity to it that makes the conversational feel essential. Episodes often begin with close-ups of the caterpillars, butterflies, and other tiny creatures that populate the fields where the men detect, highlighting that same theme. The show’s beautiful intro is also a paired down song by Johnny Flynn, and it really says it all:

Will you search through the lonely earth for me?

Climb through the briar and bramble.

I will be your treasure;

I’m waiting for you.

Crook uses the song to help augment teases for some of the treasure that lies in those fields, which Lance and Andy do not yet see for themselves. It’s excruciating — you want them to immediately find gold and be rewarded for the love they show to their hobby and the appreciation of the earth they search. But the men also get plenty of joy out of their unremarkable finds (again, on theme), including old pop tops or bits of scrap metal. Crook is a gifted storyteller, one who knows the right timing to orchestrate meaningful reveals for characters who become almost instantly beloved, despite their foibles. And while there are aspects of Detectoriststhat can feel almost like a storybook in the way they unfold, it’s never saccharine or sentimental. It’s often hilarious (Jones in particular is such a gifted comedic actor, and Crook brings a winning shyness to his part), but mostly it’s just wonderfully sincere.

One of the most refreshing parts of the series is how quiet it is. There are long stretches of silence, save for the rustling of the wind, or birdsong, or even the low din of the background noise in the pub. The music is mostly restricted to rifts on the theme song, and there are no loud musical cues or quick cuts. Nothing about Detectorists is quick, and while that might frustrate some TV viewers, it’s a welcome respite from over-produced series where everything is big. This show is about things that are small, and people who might otherwise be overlooked (Crook and Jones certainly make for nontraditional leading men, and it’s wonderful). Crook is excellent at crafting characters who are incredibly quirky but still believable, and the word play in the script is reliably sharp and smart. Andy and Lance have plenty of faults, some of which get them in hot water, but the stakes are never high enough to give you palpitations (their constant, low-key war with their detecting nemeses, “Simon and Garfunkel,” is also a great recurring gag). You come to trust the storytelling, that things will come to pass in their own time, and usually in ways that you feel just fine about.

There’s not a TV category that’s analogous to indie film, but if there were, Detectorists would be there. It’s a trend more series should follow, competing with the noise of Peak TV by becoming quieter, simpler, and more thoughtful. In each six-episode season (and one half-hour Christmas Special, as is the British way), Detectorists delivers a complete story that has given us a magical bit of access to the lives of these men and the people they know and love. It’s funny, strange, and somewhat mystical from time to time. You can see how Crook adjusts those elements slightly with each new season, finding even more soulful ways to tell these simple yet incredibly full stories — about metal detecting, of all things. You need not search far for this TV treasure. “Pub?” “Go on then.”


2 thoughts on “The Beautiful Simplicity of Detectorists

  1. Some of the best TV storytelling ever, perhaps the very best. If only the series had lasted longer. Let’s hope Hollywood keeps its grubby maulers off MacKenzie Crook.

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